Muhammad to defend self

Sniper suspect insists upon acting as his own attorney in Md. trial

April 01, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

In his first Montgomery County court appearance representing himself, sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad yesterday refused a judge's pleas to change his mind about acting as his own lawyer in his sniper trial, but allowed the court to find an attorney to help him with his defense.

Circuit Judge James L. Ryan pressed Muhammad, whose public defenders claimed earlier this week that he was too mentally disturbed to stand trial, let alone represent himself, to reconsider the midweek firing of his defense team. Ryan warned Muhammad that he was up against two experienced prosecutors and told him that "lawyers can really help you," starting with pretrial preparations through the intricacies of the rules of evidence and later closing arguments.

"What's your answer?" the judge asked.

"Same as it was before, your honor," Muhammad replied.

The public defenders told the judge on Thursday that, following the Maryland Office of the Public Defender's policy, they would not serve as standby counsel, setting off a scramble to find lawyers who would.

Muhammad, 45, is facing six counts of murder in Montgomery County in the October 2002 shooting rampage that claimed 10 lives in the Washington area and placed millions of people in fear that they could be next in the sniper's sights. Already on Virginia's death row for a sniper killing, he could be sentenced to multiple life terms without parole if convicted in Maryland.

Lee Boyd Malvo, 21, convicted in Virginia of being the junior member of the sniper team, is scheduled for trial in Montgomery County this fall.

Muhammad has insisted that he has a plan to prove his innocence, moving a Yale University psychiatrist who had evaluated him for the defense to write a report that concluded Muhammad was delusional, paranoid and otherwise mentally ill.

Paul F. Kemp, president of the Montgomery County Bar Association, said finding a qualified lawyer willing to immediately drop a private practice for two months of defending Muhammad - albeit in a standby role - with no compensation would be daunting.

"It's a nightmare," Kemp said outside the courtroom.

Kemp promised the judge that he would contact Peter Greenspun and Jonathan Shapiro, the court-appointed defense team who represented him in the Prince William County, Va., case, an idea the judge liked because they know the case. Kemp said he is also putting out word to top-flight criminal defense attorneys statewide. Some large, affluent firms make staff attorneys available for free in certain circumstances.

Greenspun said late yesterday that he had received a message from Kemp. But he had not spoken with him, was unaware of the request and could not comment.

Muhammad had briefly fired Greenspun and Shapiro at the start of his Virginia trial, leaving them as standby attorneys. But he reinstated them after complaining of an abscessed tooth, but not before admitting to the jury that he was at the scene of the shootings.

Yesterday's hearing opened a window into how difficult last-minute logistics can get when a jailed defendant decides to represent himself. Much of the session was taken up with discussing the need to arrange for Muhammad to have access to documents, his potential defense witnesses and the like while ensuring tight security and not placing his jailers in the role of middlemen.

Asked by the judge whether he wants Dr. Dorothy O. Lewis, the Yale psychiatrist, to be permitted to visit him in jail, Muhammad replied, "She said she was going to get on a spaceship. I don't think she is coming back."

Another hearing was scheduled for next week to continue plans for the trial.

About 1,000 potential jurors have been contacted about their availability for five weeks, Deputy State's Attorney Katherine Winfree said. The trial is scheduled to begin May 1.

Though yesterday was the first hot spring day and people were fanning themselves in the courtroom, a skinny Muhammad was wearing thermals under his green jail garb. Some time ago, he had complained about being cold.

Muhammad arrived in court yesterday tenderly clutching his shoulder, and he began yesterday's hearing by telling the judge that officials abused him in getting him to court because he objected to being shackled. The leg irons cut into his ankle, he said.

"I've been dragged. I've been kicked. My shoulder has been disconnected," he said, explaining that he needed a wheelchair.

Outside of the courtroom, Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond Kight said Muhammad was lying. He said Muhammad takes inch-long steps, requiring deputies to hold his arms to move him along, and does not require a wheelchair. Deputies, including a SWAT team, transport him from the county jail.

"That man was not brutalized," he said.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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